1 THE SHIITE QUESTION IN SAUDI ARABIA Middle East Report N September 2005
2 TABLE OF CONTENTS EXECUTIVE SUMMARY... i I. INTRODUCTION: SHIISM IN SAUDI ARABIA... 1 II. POLITICAL SHIISM... 2 A. THE RISE OF POLITICAL SHIISM...2 B. FROM POLITICISATION TO CONFRONTATION...3 III. SHIITE POLITICS TODAY... 5 A. COMMUNALISM AND CONCILIATION...5 B. POLITICAL STRUCTURES...6 C. ELECTIONS AND THE ISLAMIST-LIBERAL FALLOUT...7 IV. SHIITE GRIEVANCES... 9 A. DISCRIMINATION...9 B. SHIITES AS THE ENEMY...10 C. SECTARIAN VIOLENCE...11 D. THE LOST SAUDIS...11 V. THE FUTURE OF SUNNI-SHIITE RELATIONS VI. CONCLUSION APPENDICES A. MAP OF SAUDI ARABIA...16 B. ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP...17 C. CRISIS GROUP REPORTS AND BRIEFINGS ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA...18 D. CRISIS GROUP BOARD OF TRUSTEES...20
3 Middle East Report N September 2005 THE SHIITE QUESTION IN SAUDI ARABIA EXECUTIVE SUMMARY From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement. Beginning in the early 1990s, with then Crown Prince Abdullah's active support, the government took steps to improve inter-sectarian relations. But the measures were modest, and tensions are rising. The war in Iraq has had a notable effect, strengthening Shiite aspirations and Sunni suspicions and generally deepening confessional divisions throughout the region. King Abdullah needs to act resolutely to improve the lot of the two-million strong Shiite community and rein in domestic expressions of anti-shiite hostility. While resisting calls from tribal warriors to suppress Shiites violently, the Kingdom from the outset pacified and marginalised them. Shiites remain under-represented in official positions, and students complain of open hostility from Sunni instructors. Jobs in the police and military are rare and promotion prospects there rarer still. While restrictions have loosened, Shiites continue to face obstacles to the free and open observance of their faith. During much of the nation's history, Shiites were passive but stimulated by events in neighbouring Iran in 1979, their leaders mobilised youth around a message that directly challenged the regime, resonated with feelings of religious and community oppression, and triggered significant mass civil disobedience. Although this phase lasted less than a decade, the events, and the state's heavy-handed response, figure prominently in collective memories. The Shiite leadership gradually moderated its views, recognising the limitations of agitation and violence and seeking improved ties with a regime whose legitimacy it came to acknowledge and whose role as a bulwark against more extreme Sunni militants it came to accept. In a 1993 meeting, King Fahd promised Shiite leaders to relax political restrictions in exchange for their ending active opposition from abroad. The relative quiet that has prevailed since reflects the enduring impact of that agreement and acknowledgment by Shiite leaders that violence is unlikely to yield results. But it is a quiet that, without further concrete progress, risks exhausting itself. Saudi Arabia faces a new opportunity and a new urgency, both fuelled in part by external events. The 11 September 2001 attacks and al-qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's subsequent terror campaign inside the Kingdom focused government attention on the most militant forms of religious extremism. They also spurred rapprochement between non-violent Islamists and liberals, Sunni and Shiite, who, faced with the threat of violent Sunni militancy, joined in calling for political and religious reform. But if al-qaeda's activities offered a chance to improve sectarian relations, the war in Iraq has pulled in the opposite direction. Emboldened by the example of Iraqi co-religionists, some Saudi Shiites believe they ought to press further, while the sight of Shiite dominance in a neighbouring country heightens Sunni suspicion. Ominously, a rising number of Saudi Sunni jihadi militants have been drawn to Iraq, motivated by opposition to the U.S. but also to the Shiites' increased role. The eventual return of perhaps several hundred battle-tested Saudi mujahidin seems inevitable, raising the possibility that -- like their predecessors from Afghanistan -- they will seek a new battlefield and threaten Western and governmental targets, as well as the Shiite minority. While sectarian tensions arguably are higher than at any time since 1979, there appears little risk today of violent sectarian confrontation, but that is no reason for complacency. Instead, steps should be taken now to defuse a potential crisis. King Abdullah signalled his support while Crown Prince for more Shiite rights, most importantly by promoting inclusive national dialogues and bringing key members of the Sunni clergy along. But his true test comes now. Moving forward will require a long-term commitment to political and social integration and to combating domestic hate-speech, including: expanding Shiite presence in government institutions, in particular in national and local councils including the Majlis al-shura and Regional Councils; lifting remaining restrictions on Shiite religious rituals and practices, specifically by allowing
4 Crisis Group Middle East Report Nº45, 19 September 2005 Page ii construction of mosques and community centres (husseiniyyas) and the production, printing, and circulation of religious materials within their communities. The decision by the government to permit observance of Ashura in 2004 was an important first measure; and encouraging tolerance, eliminating anti-shiism in mosques and schools, and curbing statements that incite anti-shiite violence. Alongside its crackdown on al-qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the government spearheaded an effort to promote tolerance and diversity. But, expressions of sectarian hatred remain common, including by persons in positions of religious authority. The government should organise a national information program encouraging tolerance and emphasising national unity. Western governments are justifiably concerned about restrictions on religious freedom; in 2004 the U.S. State Department listed Saudi Arabia as a country of concern in this respect. But foreign pressure directly targeting the issue, especially in light of growing suspicions that the U.S. is hostile to Islam and championing Shiites regionally, could backfire. The U.S. and the EU would do better by focusing their public efforts on the need for broad reform, with the goal of expanding the rights and political participation of all Saudis, irrespective of sect. Riyadh/Amman/Brussels, 19 September 2005
5 Middle East Report N September 2005 THE SHIITE QUESTION IN SAUDI ARABIA I. INTRODUCTION: SHIISM IN SAUDI ARABIA Saudi Arabia's roughly two million Shiites represent between 10 and 15 per cent of the total population. 1 Most live and work in the Eastern Province, which they dominate demographically and which is also home to the largest oil fields and most expansive processing and refining facilities. While a small number reside in Dammam, the Eastern Province's capital and largest city, the overwhelming majority live in the towns and villages of the two large oases, Qatif and al-hasa. 2 Small Shiite communities also exist in Mecca and Medina, and a sizeable Ismaili community 3 of roughly 100,000 lives in and around Najran in the remote border region close to the Yemeni border. Shiism in the Arabian Peninsula dates back to Islam's first century, when residents rejected the passing of the Caliphate from Muhammad to Abu Bakr instead of Ali. While Iraq and Iran are the heartland of Shiism today, 1 There are no reliable figures for minorities. According to a 2004 government census, Saudi Arabia's total population was 22,670,000, including 16,529,302 citizens. The 10 to 15 per cent figure refers to "Twelvers", who are the majority of Shiites and believe that the twelfth Imam, their supreme spiritual guide on earth and direct descendant of the prophet, went into occultation in the ninth century. For a brief description of the origins of the dispute between Shiites and Sunnis, see Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report N 37, Understanding Islamism, 2 March 2005, pp Qatif, the name of a mid-size city and an oasis home to dozens of small villages, is approximately 40 km. north of Dammam. It is surrounded by smaller towns and villages. The much larger al-hasa oasis is approximately 125 km. south of Qatif. In addition to the dozens of predominantly Shiite villages that ring the oasis' palm groves, al-hasa has two large cities, Hofuf and Mubarraz, home to both Shiites and Sunnis. 3 The Ismailis or "Seveners" recognise Ismail (the eldest son of the sixth Imam Ja'far) as the seventh imam, and the line of imams descended from him to the present; the imam of the main body of Ismailis is the Agha Khan, the 49 th in line of descent from the Prophet Muhammad". Crisis Group Report, Understanding Islamism, op. cit., pp eastern Arabia also has been an important centre of Shiite spiritualism. 4 From the fourteenth century until early in the twentieth, Shiites in the Arabian Peninsula fell under virtually continuous foreign domination. With the exception of three quarter's of a century of Portuguese presence in the sixteenth century, this typically meant rule by foreign Sunnis. 5 Even so, Shiism remained the dominant spiritual authority. Clerics and followers kept alive important religious institutions, such as mosques and husseiniyyas (community centres), 6 until the advent of Saudi rule. They openly observed annual rituals such as the public mourning processions in honour of the martyrdom of Hussein (Ashura). Similarly, until the mid-twentieth century those pursuing religious learning studied in local hawzas (centres of learning) overseen by senior clerics and funded by the local khums (religious tithe). 7 Ties also were retained to Shiite communities abroad, as students and aspiring clerics regularly travelled to Iraq to complete religious training. Underscoring the historical connection to that country, Qatif's hawza was known as little Najaf until the 1940s. 8 In 1913, the al-saud conquered the Eastern Province, wresting control from its Ottoman rulers and incorporating it into what would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Driven primarily by economic and political ambition, the al-saud nonetheless relied heavily on religiously impassioned tribal warriors (ikhwan) 9 to consolidate their 4 Among those from eastern Arabia who achieved theological prominence are Ibrahim al-qatifi (sixteenth century), Ahmed Zayn ad-din al-ahsa'i (d. 1801), Ali al-khunayzi (d. 1944). 5 Juan Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi ite Islam (New York, 2001), p Husseiniyyas originally were built to observe Ashura, the date when Imam Hussein was martyred. In Saudi Arabia their role evolved over time, serving as centres for social, cultural and religious activities. 7 The oasis of al-hasa now maintains the hawza al-'ilmiyya; a new hawza opened in Qatif in 1996 and recently moved to a new building. A community leader told Crisis Group that, "although officials know about it, they are being passive about it". Crisis Group correspondence, 25 August See al-medina, 8 October The ikhwan should not be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimin), which emerged in Egypt
6 Crisis Group Middle East Report Nº45, 19 September 2005 Page 2 control. Central to the ikhwan's belief was the call for jihad, particularly against those deemed unbelievers and apostates, among whom Shiites figured prominently. The ikhwan exerted considerable pressure on the future King, Abd al-aziz, either to forcibly convert or kill them. His refusal led in part to the ikhwan's 1926 uprising, which the al-saud ultimately crushed. Nevertheless, the ikhwan appear to have taken matters in their own hands, killing a large, albeit unknown, number of Shiites. Established in 1932, the Kingdom pursued a variety of means simultaneously to pacify and marginalise its Shiite minority. With encouragement from the new rulers, thousands of Sunni settlers and aspiring merchants from Najd and Qasim flooded the eastern communities, helping build new cities and centres of commerce that seldom benefited Shiites. This influx undermined old trading and agricultural networks that traditionally had sustained local economy and society. For the most part, Sunni settlers and visiting merchants bypassed local Shiite businessmen, opting instead to trade with co-religionists from central and western Arabia. Shiite date farmers, who once traded with merchants from as far as Central Asia and East Africa, saw their produce and resources seized by the state. Shiites found work at the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) but rarely moved into management positions. At the same time, Saudi rulers and local overseers severely constrained Shiite religious observance and practice. Restrictions included injunctions against publicly broadcasting calls to prayer, a ban on publishing and distributing religious or political texts, limits on mosque construction, the destruction of shrines, the dismantling of centres of religious learning, and prosecution and even persecution of those observing Shiite rituals, including Ashura and grave visitation. The net effect, beginning with the founding of modern Saudi Arabia and accelerating with the building of the state, was to weaken Shiite institutions seriously. While many remained devoted to the tenets of faith, and clerics retained authority over elements of spiritual life, other pressures diminished the broad appeal and local dominance of Shiism in the mid-twentieth century. Oil discovery and Aramco's expansion -- which brought jobs for local residents as well as thousands of expatriate labourers from the Middle East and further abroad -- exposed eastern Arabia residents to ideological alternatives, which were embraced to varying degrees from the 1950s to the 1970s. Communism, Nasserism and Baathism each enjoyed some following among Shiite labourers and local residents. in Although the Muslim Brotherhood did enjoy popularity in Saudi Arabia after the 1960s, the earlier ikhwan was a tribal force subordinated to the authority of King Abd al-aziz. II. POLITICAL SHIISM A. THE RISE OF POLITICAL SHIISM Under tremendous internal and external pressure, Shiite authority was restructured after the Kingdom's founding. Stripped by the state of their public role, Shiite religious authorities carried on in private, offering limited instruction in drastically reduced institutions and observing important rituals only in the safety of homes and mosques. Clerics continued to oversee important social and quasi-political matters, including family law, although the scope of their power was curtailed. With the dismantling of local hawzas and religious schools, Shiites grew almost totally dependent for guidance on foreign instruction and senior clerics from abroad. Most importantly, the loss of independence led to the eclipse of senior mujtahids, the most senior religious authorities. 10 Although they bristled under Saudi rule and lamented the loss of their highest local authorities, Shiites mostly adapted to rather than resisted their change in status. Clerics justified quietism by pointing out that Shiite orthodoxy historically discouraged them from interfering in political matters. 11 While quietist juridical theory no doubt influenced some clergy to eschew political matters, the decision to accommodate Saudi rule was also pragmatic. Rather than challenging Saudi power, which would have invited repression, Shiite clergy endured under difficult circumstances. Neither religious nor other community activists spoke out or forcefully advocated greater freedom. 12 Instead, local representatives periodically and quietly petitioned the state for relief from most extreme forms of discrimination. The more activist political leadership and structures that dominate Saudi Shiite politics crystallised abroad and 10 "Seeking guidance from or emulating leading clergy (marja' al-taqlid) occupies a central place in Shiite theology. Current structures, in which the most respected clergy acquire large followings, evolved gradually. Although the terms of emulation have changed over time, the act of following living clerics is based on the singular importance of ijtihad, the independent exertion of the intellect in the interpretation of scripture. Mujtahids, those who are qualified to issue interpretations and rulings based on their knowledge of Shari'a (Islamic Law) and fiqh (jurisprudence), are widely respected figures and only achieve their status after years of study". Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report N 40, Bahrain's Sectarian Challenge, 6 May 2005, pp Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (New Haven, 1985), pp There were periods of unrest in the East, particularly in the 1950s when labourers at Aramco rebelled against low wages, poor living conditions and discriminatory practices.
7 Crisis Group Middle East Report Nº45, 19 September 2005 Page 3 coincided with broader trends in Shiite outlook in the 1960s and 1970s. Most prominent was the call for greater political power and authority for jurisprudents (vilayat-efaqih) issued by the Iranian Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini. As was the case with other aspiring Shiite clerics from the Gulf, his influence was more symbolic than direct. He was an inspiring force but the content of his message ultimately mattered less than his example of defiance. Those active at the time told Crisis Group that they were not inspired to spread Khomeini's revolution but rather to demand greater religious rights at home. 13 The present generation of Shiite political leaders from Qatif and al-hasa studied religion in Najaf, where they gradually discarded their quietist outlook. After an Iraqi government crackdown in 1973 on charges that they were Saudi spies, several fled to Qom, Iran, among them Sheikh Hassan al-saffar, the current pre-eminent Saudi Shiite political figure. In 1974, their migration took al-saffar and his colleagues to Kuwait, where Ayatollah Muhammad al-hussayni al-shirazi, a senior cleric from Karbala, had relocated along with his nephew Muhammad Taqi al- Mudarrasi to establish a religious school. 14 Their school also attracted followers from Iraq and Bahrain. Kuwait proved fertile ground for Gulf political Shiism. In partial agreement with Khomeini, al-shirazi argued that clerics should play a more direct role in local and national politics and Shiites should be more assertive in demanding respect for religious and political rights. 15 Differing from Khoemini, however, al-shirazi and al-mudarrasi also relied heavily on contemporary Sunni Islamist texts to promote religiosity and advocated the organisation of grass-roots political Shiism. Reflecting on his time in Kuwait, al-saffar remarked that among the most influential materials he studied were those of the Muslim Brothers and Sunni Islamists, including Hassan al-banna and Sayyid Qutb from Egypt as well as Abul Ala Mawdudi from Pakistan. 16 Iraqi Shiite activists, particularly members of the militant Hizb al-dawa, also spent time in Kuwait and influenced their Saudi counterparts. 13 Crisis Group interview, Safwa, 23 April Al-Medina, 8 October In addition to al-saffar, a handful of other students who form the nucleus of the contemporary Saudi Shiite political network spent time in Kuwait. They include Tawfiq al-sayf and his brothers Fawzi al-sayf and Mahmood al-sayf (from Tarut), Yusuf Salman al-mahdi (Safwa), Hassan Makki al-khawayldi (Safwa), and Musa Abu Khamsin and his brother Hussein Abu Khamsin (al-hasa). Al-Medina, 22 October Followers of al-shirazi told Crisis Group that he did not fully endorse Khomeini's view of vilayet-e-faqih. While al- Shirazi supported a political role for clerics, especially in running state affairs, he preferred rule by committee rather than concentrating political power in one jurisprudent. 16 Al-Medina, 15 October Applying these lessons, al-saffar and his followers helped create the political-religious networks that dominate Saudi Shiite politics to this day. 17 Students in Kuwait periodically returned to Saudi Arabia in the mid 1970s and in 1975 set up the underground Shiite Reform Movement. The group circulated audiocassettes, delivered Friday sermons, and distributed literature advocating a more politicallyminded brand of Shiism. 18 B. FROM POLITICISATION TO CONFRONTATION In 1977, al-saffar and his colleagues returned to Qatif, where their claim to both political and religious authority and calls for activism challenged quietest clerics and secular ideologues alike. Within two years, events in Iran -- and in particular Tehran radio broadcasts criticising the Saudi royal family -- gave them added prominence. Political Shiism became a powerful albeit only loosely controlled force in eastern Saudi Arabia. Tapping into ferment created by events abroad, particularly the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the local vacuum, al-saffar and his colleagues energised large numbers of Shiite youth, building support for a message that directly challenged the regime, spoke to Shiite religious and community grievances, and ultimately, in 1979, triggered the most significant mass civil disobedience by Saudi Shiites in the century. 19 Although Khomeini advocated toppling the al-saud, more realistic Saudi activists were focused on specific grievances: the right to observe Shiite rituals; an end to discrimination; a greater oil revenue share; job opportunities; and modernising Shiite communities plagued by crumbling infrastructure, sewage-filled streets and rampant disease. Reflecting regional tensions, they also condemned the Riyadh-Washington alliance and the U.S. presence in the region. Popular anger gave way to mass protest in November 1979, when several thousand Shiites in Safwa defied the government ban and turned out to commemorate Ashura. 20 The National Guard responded forcefully and, 17 For information on the Shiite Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia, see Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (New York, 1999), p Crisis Group interview, Manama, 19 July A Shiite who was active politically in the late 1970s told Crisis Group they hoped to use Shirazi's message to build local credibility and political capital. He claimed they did not seek violent revolution or links with foreign groups. Crisis Group interview, Safwa, 23 April See Jacob Goldberg, "The Shi'i minority in Saudi Arabia", in Juan Cole and Nikki Keddie (eds.), Shi'ism and Social Protest (New York, 1986); Joseph Kostiner, "Shi'i unrest in
8 Crisis Group Middle East Report Nº45, 19 September 2005 Page 4 over subsequent days, killed more than twenty. The state's heavy-handed reaction lasted well into the following year, leading to many arrests and driving several hundred into exile; al-saffar himself took refuge in Iran before settling in Damascus. 21 Widespread participation in the 1979 protests reflected the merging of a popular message with new Shiite political organisations. In the months prior, al-saffar renamed the Shiite Reform Movement as the Organisation for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (OIR, Munathamat al-thawra al-islamiyya fil- Jazira al-arabiyya) 22 and distributed flyers urging public dissent, warning the Saudi and U.S. governments, and demanding that Shiite grievances be addressed. These events still figure prominently in the collective imagination of Saudi Shiites and transformed the nature of Shiite politics. They also helped establish al-saffar and his closest colleagues -- most of whom also were in exile by as unrivalled community leaders. 23 The confrontational phase of political Shiism's mainstream lasted less than a decade. Beginning in the late 1980s, the exiled leadership moderated its views; as told by former OIR members, they grew tired of aggressive messages and tactics and recognised that, given demographic realities, Shiites could not wage a successful revolution. However inspiring, the example of Iran was of little relevance; violence was unlikely to achieve concessions on religious, political or social issues. 24 The 1988 end of the Iran-Iraq war also likely led to the realisation that Iran would not liberate the region's Shiites. Instead, they gradually shifted to a two-track approach in which they both expressed grievances and sought improved relations with a regime whose legitimacy they the Gulf", in Martin Kramer (ed.), Shi ism, Resistance, and Revolution (Boulder, 1987); James Buchan, "Opposition in Saudi Arabia", in T. Niblock (ed.), State, Society and Economy in Saudi Arabia (London, 1982); Hussein Musa, al-ahzab wa al-harakat al-islamiyya fi al-khalij wa al-jazira al-arabiyya (Manama, 2004). 21 Many important exiled figures now play central roles in Shiite community politics, including Shaykh al-saffar, Ja'far al-shayeb (recently elected to the Municipal Council in Qatif), Tawfiq al-sayf (a London resident who writes a weekly column for Okaz, a Saudi-based daily), Issa al-mu'zil (elected to the Municipal Council in Qatif), and Sadeq al-jubran (political activist now living near Hofuf, al-hasa). 22 Madawi al-rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (New York, 2001), p Crisis Group interviews, Eastern Province, May Al- Saffar and dozens of exiles pursued their efforts abroad, engaging in a fifteen-year anti-government media campaign, while maintaining a network of activists inside the Kingdom. Hundreds of followers provided details of arrests, governmental abuse and community developments. Crisis Group interview, Manama, 19 July Crisis Group interview with Ja'far al-shayeb, June acknowledged. 25 Initially reluctant to engage with individuals it deemed dangerous activists, the Kingdom's rulers eventually responded. 26 In 1993, in the wake of efforts by Saudi officials in the U.S. and UK, King Fahd invited four Shiite leaders and supporters of al-saffar (Ja'far al-shayeb, Sadeq al-jubran, Issa al-mu'zil, and Tawfiq al-sayf) to Jeddah to discuss their grievances. In exchange for their ending active opposition from abroad, the government released political prisoners held since the 1980s, allowed hundreds of exiles to return, restoring their passports and right to travel. Importantly, Saudi Shiites also were assured that fundamental social and religious issues would be addressed. According to various observers, Saudi rulers ordered government departments to curb discriminatory practices and that school text books "be amended to remove disparaging references to Shi'ism". 27 The agreement produced mixed results. Shiites claim that with only few exceptions (particularly in healthcare), little has been done to address their needs. 28 Nor did all Shiites acquiesce in the conciliatory approach. In 1987, a small number founded Saudi Arabia's Hizbollah, reportedly with Iranian help; militants are said to have travelled to Iran and Lebanon, where they allegedly trained in Hizbollah camps. 29 The 25 June 1996 attack against an American military housing compound in al-khobar, which killed nineteen and wounded 350, was seen as a reminder that Shiite militancy remained a serious threat. While responsibility has yet to be established and the event remains clouded in mystery, from the outset suspicion centred on Saudi Hizbollah with possible involvement by Iran. 30 After the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., speculation mounted that al-qaeda might have been involved in the Khobar bombings, a theory long suggested -- albeit without evidence -- by some Saudi Shiites Crisis Group interview with a group of liberal Saudi activists, Sayhat, 19 April 2005; Crisis Group interview with former political exiles, May-June See also Fandy, op. cit., pp Al-Medina, 29 October Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi'a: The Forgotten Muslims (New York, 1999), p Crisis Group interviews, Eastern Province, April-May Anthony H. Cordesman, "Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia and the attack on al-khobar", CSIS, June Other Shiites chose neither accommodation nor confrontation, opting instead for isolation and refusing to deal with the royal family or government. 30 In June 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted thirteen Saudi Shiites for their alleged role in the attacks. 31 Crisis Group interviews, Saudi Arabia, April-May, 2005; Crisis Group interview in Tarut, 20 April Others Shiites are more circumspect, pointing out that Saudi Shiites had
9 Crisis Group Middle East Report Nº45, 19 September 2005 Page 5 III. SHIITE POLITICS TODAY A. COMMUNALISM AND CONCILIATION Eschewing more confrontational and political efforts, the focal point of Shiite activism after the leadership's return from exile in the mid-1990s was essentially communalist, devoted above all to defending community interests vis-àvis other sectarian groups and the state. 32 But another series of external and internal events -- the 11 September attacks, al-qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's terror campaign inside the Kingdom, and the war in Iraq -- provoked a further significant readjustment. Islamist and liberal secularist Shiites, faced with clear manifestations of violent Sunni Islamist militancy, joined with others urging political and religious reform to stem the tide of home-grown extremism. Some Shiite activists became prominent members of the reform lobby that emerged on the national stage in Breaking from a narrowly sectarian agenda, some Shiite political activists called for broad institutional and political reform, the easing of restrictions on speech and a more participatory political system. Several signed the January 2003 petition, "A Vision for the Present and Future of the Nation", that sparked broader discussion of reform. 34 At the core of their approach is the conviction, expressed by Najib al-khunayzi (a Shiite liberal activist who signed the petition, was arrested in March 2004 and has since been released), that change was inevitable but the country would be better served if managed by the al- Saud. 35 The war in Iraq added another layer of complexity: some Shiites were emboldened, persuaded the U.S. invasion would result in pressure on the regime to loosen its grip; others were fearful it would set back local reform efforts by raising fears of Shiite empowerment; and many felt both ways at once. 36 Seeking to take advantage of the new trained abroad, and bomb materials had been smuggled across the Saudi-Jordanian border. Crisis Group interview, Dammam, 18 April See generally Crisis Group Report, Understanding Islamism, op. cit., pp Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report N 28, Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?, 14 July Three Saudi reformers edited and published a collection of commentary and documents on reform, The Saudi Spring and the Exit from Oppression: The Call for Political Reform (Rabi'a al-sa'udiyya wa mukhrajat al-qama`: da'wat lilislah al-siyasiyya), including articles by leading reformers as well as the petitions from The text is banned in Saudi Arabia. One of the editors provided Crisis Group a copy. 35 Crisis Group interview, Sayhat, 18 April Crisis Group interviews, Eastern Province, April-May situation while insulating themselves from charges of disloyalty, 450 Shiites from different political groupings followed up the national petition with one of their own in late April 2003, "Partners in the Nation". While principally intended to demonstrate their allegiance, it also emphasised ongoing community grievances, called for sweeping changes to end discrimination, allow greater freedom of worship and speech, expand political opportunities for Shiites and curb sectarian hatred, in effect emphasising the signatories' commitment to the nation while asserting the need for a more secure place for Shiites within it. 37 In a rare audience with then Crown Prince Abdullah, the Shiite leaders allegedly were promised their concerns would be addressed. 38 Greater willingness to work within the system, renounce confrontation and assert loyalty to the al-saud reflects another realisation on the Shiite leadership's part. Most now appear to have concluded that their community's security is intimately bound up with the survival of a regime that alone can mediate between various and often competing groups while keeping the most extreme elements at bay. Hence the emphasis on national unity, coexistence, cooperation, the centrality of Islam, all of which are designed to refute suspicions of disloyalty to the regime or central state. In the words of an activist who played down the community's more confrontational period, "Shiites have long expressed a willingness to participate in the state and to support partnership". 39 Muhammad Mahfuz, a political philosopher and co-editor of the Shiite journal al-kalima (The Word), explained: "Sharing power and being a partner is the only way to unity and security for the community". He reiterated to Crisis Group the theme of his most recent book, Dialogue and National Unity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, calling for a political system "that permits different interpretations of Islam" and stressing that the source of the problem is not the al-saud but "their reliance on salafis". 40 Whether this will persuade other Saudis is uncertain. The belief remains strong among Sunnis that Shiites are merely biding their time, banking on external support -- U.S. or other -- to establish their own independent state. Such views regularly find their way to internet sites and chat rooms; some clerics have explicitly warned of a Shiite-U.S. connection. Anti-Shiite suspicion extends as far as Sunni opponents of the regime. Saad al-faqih, a London-based dissident who calls for the royal family's 37 Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Report N 31, Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who Are the Islamists?, 21 September 2004, p Crisis Group interview, Hofuf, 22 April Crisis Group interview, Hofuf, 22 April Crisis Group interview, Sayhat, 19 April 2005.